Untitled from the series Family, Friends and Strangers by Mary Frey
Mary Frey is a prominent photographer and Professor of Photography at Hartford Art School, Connecticut, USA. I first came across her work in the catalogue of Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, the influential MoMA exhibition of 1991, so I was particularly excited when she agreed to be interviewed here. Her work demonstrates a sharpness of eye and meticulous technique and her concepts, although seemingly banal, renew my faith in everyday wonder and photography’s ability to take those moments and immortalise them. For me, it was a pleasure to discover her continued devotion to photography and her considered approach. I’ll let you enjoy it for yourself.
Can you tell us about when you first discovered photography?
As a child, I loved to paint and draw and excelled in my art classes. In addition I grew up close to NYC, so occasionally visited museums to see original works of art. I always owned a point and shoot camera which I used to record special events, but never really thought about photography as a serious art practice until I was in college. I still remember that “aha” moment. It occurred during my third year of study as an art student. I came across Henri Cartier-Bresson’s book, The Decisive Moment, and I was hooked- I needed to make photographs. That was in 1969, and I never looked back.
Did you know early on that it was going to be a life pursuit?
Upon graduation I had a brief stint studying photography in graduate school but dropped out because I felt my work lacked direction and I was not ready to make a serious commitment to the practice. For the next seven years I held a variety of jobs (editorial, sales, teaching, commercial) all connected to photography, while continuing to make and exhibit my personal work. At the time I was doing street photography, strongly influenced by the work of Robert Frank, Gary Winogrand and Diane Arbus. I found teaching to be a good fit with these artistic activities so returned to graduate school in 1977 with a new commitment to photography as a lifetime vocation.
Man Fastening Pearls
Some of your early practice (Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas) is concerned with exploring photography’s role in depicting the everyday. What began your interest in these themes and what did you find?
During my second year of graduate study I visited my parents and dug out our family albums. At the time I was struck by how many of my childhood memories were formed by the snapshots taken during these events. Although not an original insight, it acted as a catalyst to explore this idea. I began by recreating either the scenes I remembered or the spirit of these events, using family and friends as actors. I also drew inspiration from sixties television, the illustrations in the popular magazines like Life and Look that I grew up with, and the writing of novelists like John Cheever, Raymond Carver and Jayne Ann Phillips. As the project evolved, I made a “laundry list” of everyday moments to photograph. I sought out people in the street whom I found visually interesting and managed to get into their homes to document these activities. All these folks (family members and strangers) became my cast of characters for both the Domestic Rituals and Real Life Dramas series, which I worked on for the next eight years.
Boy with Volcano Project
How was it received at the time? What else was going on in photography then that stands out to you?
Domestic Rituals was generally well received. I had several solo shows around the US, and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for the work in 1984. Real Life Dramas was featured in “New Photography 2” at the Museum of Modern Art (NY) in 1986. During this time there was a lot of street photography going on. Also artists were using large format cameras in many non-traditional situations- and I was looking at the early work of my contemporaries like Nick Nixon, Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann and Joel Meyerowitz, and artists who explored American vernacular themes in their work such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. In addition, having studied in the MFA program at Yale, the influence of Walker Evans was profound.
The prosaic nature of many of your scenes interests me. I particularly enjoy the attention to the aesthetic of the image that your work demonstrates in a constructed way, yet still retaining a sense of documentary.
Can you talk us through your creative process? How do you find pictures? Or do you create them?
The tools I employed- a large format camera, B&W film, flashbulb lighting- had a significant affect on how my images looked, and in turn, how my aesthetic evolved. Working slowly with the view camera forced me to construct, rather than capture moments. My diffuse lighting techniques created a soft, revealing and democratic light, where everything was described with precision and all things in a scene had equal visual weight. When I approached potential subjects I simply stated I wanted to photograph everyday people doing everyday things. My working process was fluid. Often I had specific ideas about what I wanted for the photograph, but occasionally I would see a gesture in passing that intrigued me, and asked my subject to re-create it for the camera. The successful images hovered somewhere between the documentary and directorial modes, evoking the look of film stills or tableaux-vivants.
Perhaps photography works best in these scenarios; making something rather mundane into a universally resonant moment. I think it is a talent to resist the sensational in photography to concentrate on the ‘unseen’. Could you talk about your experience of / thoughts on this a little?
A photograph shows us what we know, yet contains its own fiction. That’s what excited me about Bresson’s work many years ago and the work of others whom I admire. I’ve always found it a challenge to photograph the familiar and to move beyond the image of what it is – to what it could be about.
What techniques do you use and how do you decide for each project what suits it?
I truly believe that work begets work and materials hold meaning. I often start with a simple idea and allow the photographs to inform the process to move the project along. For example, I spent over a year photographing taxidermy under studio lights with a digital camera for the Imagining Fauna series. Although lush and beautiful, these images lacked an integrity I couldn’t pin down. Then I happened upon an ambrotype and I realized this is what they needed to be. I converted the digital files into B&W transparencies and, with the wet-plate process, printed them onto black glass. Not only were these images of 19th century specimens created with an antique photo process, but the plates themselves had a physicality that acted as metaphor for the subjects and, in turn, our precarious relationship with nature.
In Real Life Dramas you introduce text as a major component of the ‘image’. What were your reasons for this and how do you see image and text working together here? Where did the texts come from?
When I began Real Life Dramas I merely wanted to see what my pictures could mean in color. I approached my subjects in a similar way to the earlier B&W work, but switched to a medium format camera. This allowed me to shoot off-tripod changing the look and feel of the images. While working in people’s homes during the day, I noticed that their television sets were always on, often tuned to soap operas. Thinking about how popular culture permeates (mediates) our lives, I began to wonder how words could affect the meaning of my images. I read mass-market paperback novels, and appropriated the feel of their language creating phrases I would pair with the photographs. Often overblown and pretentious, these words would shift and/or change the reading of the photographs, injecting humor into sober moments. The text looks like a caption, but operates against the description of the scene depicted, opening up possibilities for new interpretations and bringing into question the “truth” of the photographic image.
You are now working on Imagining Fauna. What brought you to this seemingly new subject territory?
I read an article entitled “Dying a Second Death” about how 19th Century taxidermy was deteriorating due in part to the chemicals used to preserve them, as well as the expense required to restore and house them in museums worldwide. This struck a nerve with me and my instincts took over. As I mentioned above, I spent a year photographing these creatures without a clear notion of why. It wasn’t until I discovered the wet-plate collodion process that it all made sense.
What have you learnt about yourself as a result of pursuing photography for the bulk of your career?
I’ve learned to trust my instincts. I’m unafraid of hard work, and willing to accept failure.
What keeps you going as a practitioner?
I’ve made a commitment to my practice and I feel a responsibility to my work. It has been recognized and supported these many years and I appreciate and respect that.
What advice would you give early career photographers?
Be patient, work hard, follow your passions, take chances and don’t be afraid to fail.
From Gardening at Night by Cig Harvey
When Cig Harvey’s latest book Gardening at Night arrived from Schilt Publishing I was so immediately pulled in by the strength and vibrancy of the images that I was a little wary of being seduced. So I had a quick flick, and waited a few days until I had the time to devote to it, to scrutinise it and enjoy it. I found that it was not just a visual punch but that among the striking imagery where written stories. I always find the relationship between image and text a powerful one and this book brings its own variation to this compelling duo. Some photo books rely on the text to tell the story while the images illustrate, some rely on the images while the text illustrates, some have two separate conversations going on and some have a push and pull dynamic and some, like Harvey’s, have equal footing. While reading I felt like I was suspended somewhere between a teenage novel and a mother’s world. The ambiguity both drew me in and left me wondering. I asked Cig more about this process below.
Sharon Boothroyd: When did you first know that you wanted to tell this story?
Cig Harvey: Well my first book, You Look at Me Like an Emergency, explored stories
around finding and defining home. Gardening at Night grew out of that
work and is about creating a life where you are. It’s an exploration
of home, family, nature, and time.
You include a breadth of image styles in this project which I really
enjoyed. From constructed, studio-style shots to more natural,
documentary work, with recurrent and diverse subject matter such as
nature, darkness, night, indoors, outdoors… How do you bring these
elements together in a cohesive way within the narrative structure? What do
these different aspects mean to you?
Thanks. I always say that I like to make pictures about things, not of
things, and I try to avoid drawing from only one genre or subject
matter. For me, the story is always the most important element and all
the formal concerns of light, frame, style are all in support of that
The book is a combination of caught, found and made. I’ve always been
both a finder and constructor. Sometimes I obsess over an image
I want to make and it can take years to get the right light and
atmosphere. Other times I find a picture. When that happens it always
feels like a magical gift.
Do you always carry your camera with you?
Yes, I always have a camera with me. If I am planning a shoot in a more
constructed way, I use a bigger camera and carry more equipment. But I
always have some sort of camera in my bag just in case.
Where did the text originate? Did you write it especially for the
book or was it from journals or other sources?
The text from my first book, You Look at me Like an Emergency, grew out
of my journals. I had always written as a way to access ideas and
imagery but had never planned to publish the words. Bringing text and
images together in Emergency, I realized how they both brought something
different to the table. I loved that addition and wanted to foster that
collaboration further in Gardening At Night, so I wrote the text knowing
it would be shown with the images.
I actually don’t really think about that balance. When I am writing I
try to get out of the way of myself. I actually lean my body to the left
and look up to the right when I write. A little odd I know. I try to
write and make pictures from the heart. If I think I have written
something worthwhile it typically rings honest to me. With my pictures I
am drawn to a truthful idea, but I try to visually play while I am
shooting, and that often leads to ambiguity, which I am ok with. In
fact, that is possibly the strength in some of these pictures.
The book is an important aspect of this project although it also
exists as a gallery installation. What do you look for in a book? What
does it bring that a gallery show doesn’t? What do you look for in a
designer and how does this collaboration best work out?
I love the narrative structure of a book. Gardening is very much a story
from start to finish. It is sequenced in multiple ways: visually, by
season, and by Scout’s age.
I think the best collaborations are when everyone does what they do
best and feels a sense of ownership in the work. Deb Wood, the designer
of both my books is a really talented artist with a strong vision and an
authentic voice. I love working with her.
I am inspired by everyday life and trying to make what I see as visually
poetic as possible. Essentially, I am making photographs as a way to
remember and slow down my experience of the world. It is my way of not
forgetting. The photograph is evidence.
I am also inspired by how work grows over a number of years. How making
things most days adds up to a life’s work.
What continues to inspire you if / when you have been discouraged?
Just the simple act of making pictures. I really just love making
pictures and seeing the way the camera records things differently than
my eyes. Photography itself is never discouraging, all it does, is give.
What advice would you give a discouraged photographer / artist?
Get your head down and go make something you love.
Cig Harvey’s books and photographs have been widely exhibited and remain in the permanent collections of major museums and collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas; the Farnsworth Art Museum, Rockland, Maine; and the International Museum of Photography and Film at the George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. She was recently nominated for the John Gutmann fellowship and a finalist of the BMW Prize at Paris Photo and the Prix Virginia, an international photography prize for women. Cig had her first solo museum show at the Stenersen Museum in Oslo, Norway, in the spring of 2012 in conjunction with the release of her monograph, You Look At Me Like An Emergency (Schilt Publishing, 2012). Cig’s devotion to visual storytelling has lead to innovative international campaigns and features with New York Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar Japan, Kate Spade, and Bloomingdales. Cig also teaches workshops and regularly speaks on her work and processes at institutions around the world.
Robert Harding Pittman is a photographer and film-maker concerned with the impact of human interaction with the planet. His recent body of work Anonymization is a 10-year project which deals with ‘urban sprawl’ on an international scale. The work finds its outlet as an exhibition and publication (beautifully produced and published by Kehrer) which was nominated for the Prix Pictet Award and has been shown around the world. From American and German descent Pittman has lived, worked and studied environmentalism and photography for most of his life. His passions combine in this project to make a compelling and important reflection on the state of our planet.
ANONYMIZATION, the exhibition will open in Spot Photo gallery, LA on Saturday 2nd May and run until 3rd July 2015.
Sharon Boothroyd: Could you outline the original premise of Anonymization for us? How did it begin and evolve? Were you always shooting with a book in mind?
Robert Harding Pittman: I moved to Los Angeles to study film and photography at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). I had never lived in the desert before and very quickly became very passionate about this landscape. I was in California during the height of the construction boom and began to photograph how the desert was very rapidly being replaced by massive master-planned communities.
I lived in a “cookie-cutter” house close to the golf course, in a master-planned community, the very kind I am criticizing in “ANONYMIZATION”. I was both fascinated and horrified by the rapid destruction of the desert and by life in these developments. Never before had I been in an environment, which is so inorganic and so far removed from nature. We lived in a desert, yet every night the sprinklers ran for hours to water the lawns and golf course, to give the appearance of living in the Midwest but without the snow, cold or rain. I had never depended so much on an automobile. Even though I lived in a suburb and not in a rural area, to buy and process film, or to be in an area where I could (finally) see pedestrians, I drove 100km roundtrip, which in Europe would be absurd.
Next I moved to Spain to make a film about and photograph the massive development that was happening there at the height of their construction boom. About two hectares of land were being urbanized every hour in Spain at that time. To my disappointment, the architecture of the new developments was very similar to those I had seen in L.A. These places did not feel like Spain at all. Urban sprawl is coming to Spain, and there is not even a word for it in Spanish.
It was then that I realized that this model of urban sprawl is spreading all over the world. People in the USA are very aware of the issues and there are attempts to change things, but in places where it is new, people are less aware of the problems. It was then that I decided to make a global book project about the proliferation of urban sprawl across the globe, for which I also travelled to France, Greece, Dubai and South Korea.
I quote from my own statement about the project:
“With this anonymous type of development not only comes the destruction of the environment, but also a loss of culture and roots, as well as alienation. This globalized model of architecture does not respect or adapt itself to the natural or cultural environment onto which it is implanted. As we have seen in recent history, fervent overdevelopment has led to crises, not only financial, but also environmental and social, and some even say psychological.”
Having originally studied environmental engineering why and when did you turn to photography? What does it bring to your work?
I have been running around with a camera since I was 8 years old. Photography has always been my passion, much more than engineering ever was. I have also always felt a strong connection to nature and to my surroundings. I originally began studying engineering to one day build aircraft, but I felt it was more important to use my time, energy and knowledge to work towards protecting nature, which is why I ended up specializing in environmental engineering.
I soon realized that working only with numbers and data behind a computer would not satisfy me. I felt that cold numbers alone are not powerful enough to move people, governments and companies to change their ways. Numbers lack emotion for most people. I feel and hope that a combination of numbers and emotions can be more powerful in instigating change. I stopped work as an engineer and decided to dedicate myself to photography and documentary filmmaking not only because of the creative pleasure and satisfaction that they offer me, but also I felt I could use these tools to help raise awareness about environmental issues, using emotion combined with facts. With my work I want to give those who are unheard, victims of environmental degradation and the lands they inhabit, a voice.
Pangyo New Town development.
Seoul, South Korea
Did you travel to the places (US, Europe and Middle East) in the project specifically for the purposes of the project or did they fit into your travels?
It is a combination. The project began in Los Angeles and Spain, as I already stated, as I was studying and working in these places. Dubai, I did expressly travel to for the book. I went to South Korea and Greece to show my films about urban sprawl at festivals. In both places friends told me about the development pressures in their countries and ended up taking me to various locations to film and photograph, which ended up in the book.
What are the main similarities, and any differences, you saw in the countries you travelled to regarding development?
The sad thing, and that is what I am protesting about with the book, is that these places are all very much alike. In Murcia, Spain they want to become the California or Florida of Europe. In California they want to be the Mediterranean. In China I saw a project called “California County”. In Valencia, Spain they partially built Marina D’Or, where one day they planned to build a Caribbean lagoon with a Jamaican themed resort around it, very close to the Mediterranean shore. In any case the architecture tends to be very similar in all of these places. Most of the developments also have golf courses, be they in the desert of Dubai or in South Korea. There is a certain image of luxury, the good life, at the edge of the golf course, which is becoming more and more uniform.
The main difference I saw was in South Korea, where most people dream of living in a high-rise apartment. It is considered to be a symbol of status and modernity to live in a large master-planned complex consisting of multiple high-rise apartment buildings with leisure facilities, often including golf courses, unlike in the West, where the idea of luxury is a complex of low, single-family houses.
Mall of the Emirates
The expansiveness of this project gives massive scope to the ideas you are working in. Your images include a diverse range of imagery from architectural shots, landscapes and close-ups with strong elements of design. Is your approach to making images instinctive or did you have certain criteria in mind when shooting? How did you begin to make sense of all this during the editing process?
Usually my approach to photography is impulsive and instinctive. The more I can connect with what is around me, without thinking too much, the better it is for the photographs. The photographs for the book were taken over a period of about 13 years, so there is a great range of images. I am also a filmmaker and to make editing easier one often films the same subject at three distances – a wide, medium and close-up shot. This kind of thinking at times also comes into my photography. For the book, just as in a film or in a piece of music, I wanted to create a rhythm which has variation and is not monotone, for which having a variety of types of images is important.
Most, if not all of the images are empty scenes. Is this important to you? What does it bring to the work?
Yes there are indeed no human figures in the photographs, except in two images where construction workers are working at a far distance from my lens. Yet, we humans are very present in the photographs. In the images we see how we control and dominate the earth, by reshaping it, by flattening it and by covering it with roads, parking lots, lawns in the desert and with large-scale developments. All of the structures in the photographs consist of perfect, straight lines. Straight lines do not exist in nature. As I already mentioned, I used to be an engineer and as the world and nature are so complex, we tend to simplify things, one manifestation of which is the straight line. “ANONYMIZATION” takes a critical look at this sense of control over nature, which we desire as a society.
Pizza Hut (abandoned), Route 70
Alamogordo, New Mexico, USA
The book, published by Kehrer was nominated for the Prix Pictet Photography Prize. What did this mean for you?
The nomination of “ANONYMIZATION” for the Prix Pictet is a great honor for me. The theme was “Consumption” and “ANONYMIZATION” certainly is about the consumption of large amounts of natural resources (oil, water, air, land, etc.), labor and capital.
It is inspiring and encouraging to see that we are many photographers and artists and citizens who do care about the environment and about the future of our children and our earth. The Prix Pictet is helpful in giving some prominence to this movement in photography, which is often under-represented, as issues are often brought to light that are less pleasant.
The book is divided into four parts. How did these four structures (sacred ground, conversion, prefabricated, aftermath) of this project first become apparent to you?
It took me a long time to come up with these four phases or chapters to structure the book, which is also the structure of the traveling exhibition. I had tried different ways of ordering the images but none quite worked. In some ways I think I used my engineering mind to think of this very simple structure. Regardless of where I went, I always found the building projects to be in one of these four phases. The cycle repeats itself everywhere.
Phase 1 = “Sacred Ground”
If you want to build a big development, the first thing you have to do is bulldoze away all of the vegetation that is there. Then the ground is flattened and terraced. Finally, this ground is covered again with asphalt, lawns, and (ironically) young decorative trees. I was influenced by some very inspiring Navajos I met in Arizona to whom the earth is “sacred”, and this is where that word came from. For them, wealth is having clean air, water and soil, and not having large quantities of goods.
Phase 2 = “Conversion”
These lands are converted into the developments using labor, energy, and building materials, i.e. construction.
Phase 3 = “Prefabricated”
Construction has been completed and the homogeneous, anonymous developments are finished and people can move in.
Phase 4 = “Aftermath”
As we have seen during the first decade of the millennium, overbuilding has resulted in crises. Eventually everything decays to the ground again.
Thus we have a cycle where we begin and end with the ground.
Tercia Real master-planned community (abandoned).
How would you define documentary photography? Would you consider your work to fit within this genre?
I think my work fits into both the documentary and fine art genres.
It seems that in our society we are always obliged to categorize everything, which at times can be helpful, but at times also oversimplifies reality. What I very much like about documentary photography and film is that the definition can be quite broad. My work is quite “straight” in the sense of “straight photography”. When I find an object on the ground I do not move it. I try to photograph things as I see them. But documentary cannot be free of manipulation and is never objective, nor should it pretend to be. The world is always interpreted and edited by the person behind the lens.
What is your main concern as an environmentalist?
There is a general disrespect for the earth and a lack of humility toward the planet. In the end this leads not only to environmental problems but also to conflicts between us who inhabit the earth. I believe that if there were more respect for the earth, there would be more harmony amongst us humans and vice versa.
When we contaminate some far away corner of the earth, it has consequences not only there, but in the end it affects everyone in some way and in the end it comes back to us. We in the West have most of our goods manufactured in China and it is far away, but some days in Los Angeles, 25% of the air pollution travels across the Pacific Ocean from China. The oceans are polluted with mercury, which comes mainly from the burning of coal in coal fired power plants. Mercury then gets into the fish and finally ends up in the fish we eat. We are a part of the environment and cannot separate ourselves from it.
What are you passionate about as a photographer?
I love looking. I love light, especially the light from the sun. Whenever I sit on a bus, train, bike, car or plane I take great pleasure in looking out the window and seeing the landscape pass by. I very much enjoy the process of searching for places and objects to photograph. When I have a camera in hand it intensifies my action of looking, helping me to focus and organize what I see in front of me. It helps me be more present and even if I were to not have film in my camera (or a memory card), the act of looking and focusing on something through my viewfinder helps me remember and connect more intimately with the places I visit. The best photographs come when everything comes together in one instant – the light, the place, me with my camera and some kind of magic.
If you could imagine a world that had a different way of doing urbanisation – if we used local materials and were sensitive to the culture and climate – what would it be like?
This world would look like many old cities do, where people had no choice but to use local materials and had to adapt to the climate. These places grew out of the local culture and also helped shape the local culture. Such a place as you ask me about I feel is much more human, at a human scale, where people can interact and feel integrated and at home. People can walk and move easily in this world without having to depend on an automobile for their everyday lives.
In an older city, the workplace, shops, schools and residences are all intermingled making distances shorter. In master-planned communities these spatial functions are separated. For example, a food store is not built next to houses, thus one needs to get in the car to drive to another area where the stores are located, leading to the dependency on the automobile and all of the environmental, health and social problems that this brings with it.
– – – – –
Finally I would like to thank you very much Sharon for giving me this opportunity to share my work with your audience. Many thanks to any one reading this for “listening” to me.
Karen Knorr is a photographer with international acclaim who came to prominence in the 1980s through her work ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Belgravia’ which are currently on display at Tate Britain until October 2015. Her early work was heavily influenced by film theory and the politics of representation. An extensive list of exhibitions and lecturing roles include Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Harvard, University of Westminster and Goldsmiths. She is currently a Professor of Photography at UCA, Farnham.
Here she talks with me about her life and work. This interview was commissioned for Photomonitor.
Sharon Boothroyd: You were somewhat of an insider to this world (Belgravia) via your parents if I am correct. Can you describe your relationship to Belgravia before you made this work?
Karen Knorr: I arrived in London from Paris on July 4, 1976. My parents had just purchased a 25-year lease for a maisonette (two floor apartment) at Lowndes Square in Belgravia. I lived in Belgravia for a short period, 6 months, while I was applying for photography courses to build a portfolio of photographs that I could show photographers such as David Bailey. I came to London with a series of street photographs and surrealist- inspired photographs made in Paris as an art student but realised I needed more depth to the work.
I was offered a place on a part time professional photography course at Harrow College of Technology and Art and it was here that I began to use a 5 x 4 plate camera. It was also on this course that I met Olivier Richon with whom I photographed Punks in several music clubs in London, published as a book by Gost in 2012.
I quickly decided that Belgravia was not where I wanted to live and definitely not with my parents! I moved out in January 1977 sharing a house with friends at Narcissus Road in West Hampstead. The commute to Harrow was easier and this allowed me the creative freedom necessary to explore Punks. (Showing as part of group exhibition We could be Heroes at The Photographers’ Gallery Print Sales, 6th Feb – 12th April 2015.)
At Harrow College one of my tutors Rosie Thomas introduced me to Camerawork, a new magazine published in East London that had published critical writings on photography with artists and activists such as Jo Spence. This was a different perspective from Creative Camera, a magazine edited by Colin Osman and Peter Turner which seemed more in tune to the aesthetics prevalent in Fine art photography championed by John Szarkowski at the MOMA.
My outlook and ideas concerning photography changed. I became interested in a critical approach (rather than self-expressive) to photography and began to look for a B.A. Honours course. The Polytechnic of Central London, School of Communication, at Riding House Street accepted me as a B.A. Hons in Film and Photographic Arts in 1977.
Interesting how you differentiate a critical approach from a self-expressive one. Could you expand on what the difference is?
The difference is that self-expressive work revolves around a concern for the individual ego of the artist/ photographer. It comes out of a Romantic view of the artist as having a unique and privileged view on the world suffused with authentic emotions that can be directly transferred onto the work. This notion of subjective authenticity was challenged by writers and philosophers such as Roland Barthes (Death of the Author) and also challenged by the theoretical writings of Victor Burgin in the 1970s.
A critical approach may deal with emotion and desire but more knowingly appreciates the staging and performing involved. In other words that something has to be constructed…performed.
Why did you want to make the Belgravia work? What instigated it and how did you approach your subjects?
Belgravia (1979-1981) was a series of environmental portraits on social class and the received opinions of the wealthy who lived in Belgravia, an area near Harrods (London) which now has some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
The work is autobiographical and uses humour (which operates in the space between text, image and viewer) in order to reconsider class and its prejudices. It also focuses on social inequality between men and women as well as the aspirational values attached to ‘taste’. The third meaning, a concept developed by Roland Barthes when considering montage (editing), interested me and I had read the collection of essays in Image Music Text during my second year at the Polytechnic of Central London (PCL) photography course. Belgravia arose out of an awareness of this effect between image and text that had been developed by conceptual artists such as Victor Burgin (who was my tutor) but also an awareness of Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Bill Brandt and Bill Owens’ work. The texts were constructs, highlighted by their arrangement and design beneath collaborative portraits of my parents and their friends. I would stage and style the portrait choosing and arranging furniture and clothes with the sitters. Using a 500 CM Hasselblad and a Balcar Flash with reflective umbrellas, this process was a lengthy one that would take up to three hours. I wrote down quotes from our conversations together and these were then edited and typeset on lithography film.
Bill Owens (whose book Suburbia (1) influenced my work) visited the Polytechnic of Central London during my second year on the BA Honours Photography course and we had a lively debate later in the pub about the nature of photography, whether to photograph things as they were found (his point of view) or to construct and rearrange the situation (my point of view).
The first image I took in the series was of my mother and grandmother at Lowndes Square, smoking and drinking in furs, accompanied by Belle de Jour (Buñuel 1967) on television which starred Pierre Clémenti kissing Catherine Deneuve. The portrait is performed and collaborative, photographed with bounced flash.
I approached my subjects as ‘the girl next door, aspiring photographer’ and spent hours visiting my subjects who were introduced through a network of my parents’ friends and acquaintances that lived in Belgravia. The quotes taken from their conversations were carefully edited and designed, printed onto the actual surface of the photograph. The idea was to prolong the viewing of the photograph using the aesthetics of fine art photography. The text brings a new reading to the image and the humour operates according to the spectator’s cultural background.
In the Belgravia series I was also interested in referencing architectural photography that could be found published in House and Gardens magazine. Interested in the semiotics of the bourgeois domestic interior I wanted to highlight taste and lifestyle in a humorous and ironic way by structuring the viewpoint and using text.
There was also a critical engagement with portraiture and the emerging celebrity culture found in such magazines as Tatler and Vogue that I wished to challenge. I was very aware of the art context and wished to challenge the male dominated art photography world; especially the white male photojournalist who used ‘fixers’ to gain access to developing world cultures.
This early work was critical documentary form that engaged with what was closest to me: my own family and friends. It was only much later in the 1990s that I began to work in Europe and only since 2008 that I ventured into a new digital world in my recent India Song series.
What do you think your relationship to the subjects and your understanding and awareness of the place brought to the final outcome?
The attitudes depicted through image and text were ones I did not share and the irony is strong, at moments almost cutting. These are attitudes that surrounded me in my youth and could have become my own. The first person ‘I’ in the photographs inflects an autobiographical element yet I was not aspiring to similar values. Yet all these texts could have been me.
Did your feelings towards the place change as a result of making this work?
This work is about class and privilege and the insouciance of having it. I was part of the problem, part of this world and felt conflicted.
How did you gain access to the gentlemen’s clubs when by their very nature they excluded women?
By chance and luck. It took me a year to gain access to more than one club. I spoke about my problems accessing gentlemen’s clubs to a man who ran a sandwich bar across the road from the PCL in Riding House Street showing him some contacts of other work. It turned out that his friend was Lucius Cary, 15th Viscount Falkland. Finally I gained permission to photograph the Turf and Brooks through the help of Lucius Cary. The irony was that he was Viscount of Falkland and the work highlights the conflict in the Falklands among other themes. Lucius was totally supportive and even posed for a portrait in the series, leaning over a wrought iron balustrade overlooked by a marble bust of Pitt the Younger (Britain’s youngest prime minister).
Gentlemen includes empty interiors and staged portraits of club members and actors/ friends. The text is entirely fictional, composed in two voices: the past tense historical voice and the present tense. Under the images of men photographed, the voice is in the present tense, yet referencing change; the end of the British Empire, how things once were. Under the empty interiors the voice is in the past tense… the past and the present alternate. I was reading speeches of parliament that used to be published in The Times newspaper (Hansard) and Boy’s Own stories of adventure and spy novels.
Gentlemen was very much about patriarchal values and the nature of power in the political centre of London, not far from Westminster and the palace. Language and its inflections become powerful in how they include and exclude, turning people into ‘them’ and ‘us’. The fetishisation of English with its sense of superiority is with us today; disseminated across the British Empire it has become the global language of trade.
Capitalised letters performed a parody of Englishness situating it in the 18th century tradition of satire (Pope and Swift). The first clubs founded as coffee houses were places of dissent where discussions were held with the aim of changing the British mindset, inspiring it to move forward into an era of true enlightenment and moral virtue. Thatcherite Britain appalled me with its jingoist drive towards war in the Falklands. There was cross party support for war and very little dissent. Only one journalist stood out in this respect in the mainstream press, James Cameron, who wrote for The Guardian. Other exceptions to the prevailing pro-war hysteria were John Pilger and Noam Chomsky.
How did they receive you when you were in? Would you describe this work as collaboration?
They were polite and helpful and let me get on with it. I would ask people who worked in the clubs such as the porter and secretary to pose for me in different rooms where I would set up flash equipment. This work was collaborative as it was staged and performed between us. I also used friends as actors who dressed the part. By directing I was challenging the power relations between women and men in the club interior. In clubland, women and black people are invisible and have restricted access to certain rooms; I took liberty to transgress those roles by using the camera as a tool.
Despite equal rights legislation passed in the 1970s many clubs did not allow full membership to women. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister, for example was an associate member of the Carlton Club, which appears in my series. Women were segregated and had their own rooms. The Smoking Room was strictly off limits to women and non-members.
Did your subjects see these works? What were their views of them?
They saw the photographs with texts and generally were impressed by the quality of the prints. They had no issues with the text. Their feedback was generally positive. At one point there was confusion over copyright but this was quickly resolved. As I initiated the project and it was not commissioned, the copyright of all the work belongs to me.
Can you explain a little more about your choices of text and image in both series? Where do the texts come from and why did you choose to work this way?
In Belgravia, texts come from conversations we had. I spent a lot of time with people whom I photographed and would write down or remember key topics discussed. I would keep notes of their conversations, which were then reworked, capitalising key words. The capitalisation used here indicated that the text was not a direct transcription but constructed like the photographs.
I had been reading Benjamin, Brecht, Barthes and film theory, thinking about the idea of ‘distantiation’ as referred to by Althusser as a means of challenging mainstream ideological institutional structures. Of course these structures were ‘family’ and ‘taste’ in Belgravia.
In Gentlemen text became a device to critique patriarchy and its conservative formations. The text here was totally invented, inspired by clubland literature (Dornford Yates, John Buchan, Kipling, Ian Fleming: a fictional voice) and speeches of parliament published in the Hansard section of The Times (historical voice in the past tense). The uppercase letters of words parody the speech acts of public school educated men but also reference irony.
Text adds new meanings that did not exist in the image alone and operates between the text and image. Adding text also prolongs the time that a viewer spends looking and thinking about the work. It slows the consumption of the image.
How did the public and the art world receive both these series at the time?
Critically the work was championed by the French and I had my first solo exhibition in Paris with Samia Sauoma at La Remise du Parc in November 1980. Christian Caujolle, an art critic, championed the work at its beginnings and I had write ups in the French newspapers: Libération and Le Monde. My work was shown during Mois de La Photographie set up across galleries and institutions in Paris to promote and disseminate photography.
Belgravia had appeared in group show called Five Photographers at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1981. Nine images of Gentlemen appeared at Riverside Studios in an exhibition called Beyond the Purloined Image (1983) curated by the artist Mary Kelly. The work was supported by The Arts Council who awarded me a grant, yet it received little critical attention in the UK when it first appeared. Stuart Morgan was the only one to write a supportive review of Belgravia in Artscribe in 1982. Belgravia was included in a group show in 1982 at David Dawson’s B2 Gallery in Wapping called Light Reading .
Generally the early work was respected by British academics. I was invited to lecture on my work at West Surrey College of Art (University for the Creative Arts, Farnham) and other art colleges. Gentlemen was supported by the critic Abigail Salomon- Godeau and this work was shown at PS1, New York in 1983. I earned very little from my work for years and the break through came with Connoisseurs being shown at Riverside Studios in 1986. Finally I was accepted as 0.5 Lecturer in Photographic Practice at London College for Printing and that made the difference in helping me sustain a practice which was experimental and non commercial … in fact; too conceptual for most.
It is not surprising that there are limited reviews now. Things seem to have gone backwards.
Is there a correlation between how it was received then and how it is being received now? i.e. What has changed politically in our society and is it reflected in how this work is consumed?
I think it is not being received and there is a lot of indifference to what it is referring to, i.e. class and male privilege. We live in a more unequal society as the recent BBC series The Super Rich and Us points out.
What does it mean to you to have your work in Tate Britain?
It means a lot to me in that it will be part of my legacy to British culture and hopefully it will be work that might interest future artists and their research.
It documents a particular age in the UK (1979-1983) which became the beginning of the end of an egalitarian project which included the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960’s and the Equal Pay Act of 1970, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Feminist and Gay movements. President Obama recently pointed out in a speech that social mobility had also decreased in the USA.
What are your hopes and aspirations for your career from this point? How do you define success?
Although I am getting older, I have every intention of working on new projects that challenge me mentally and physically and I have quite a few lined up.
Presently I am working on a series of performative portraits of Japanese women called Karyukai (2) and a series of works addressing folk culture and animal life in Japan called Monogatari (3). Exhibitions are planned for November 2015 at Filles du Calvaire and in 2016 at Grimaldi Gavin. I will be participating in art fairs globally including Paris, London, Delhi etc.
In 2016 I am planning a road trip across America, focusing on the Midwest with an aim to understanding and researching this part of America that my mother left to come to Europe in 1946. I hope to make this trip with Anna Fox whom I mentioned the idea to at Paris Photo last November.
Success is having enough money to be independent and enough to share with the community that nurtured you.
The success of the India Song series helped finance my studio, rented from Space studios, and to finance Chandelier Projects from my studio since September 2013. I became patron of several art organisations who had helped me in the past.
You are involved in Fast Forward, a conference at Tate [in Autumn 2015] discussing prominent issues regarding women in photography. What is your main hope for this conference?
That we help define what are the main issues confronting women photographers today and help connect and expand new networks to help each other.
What would you advise women working in photography today?
Connect with other photographers and artists; establish strong bonds and new networks using the social media and the internet to disseminate your work.
Challenge your comfort zone, take risks, learn new skills, update and push the boundaries, experiment.
(1) Suburbia, is the titled of a self published book of documentary photographs taken in the early 1970’s by Bill Owens whilst working as photographer for the Livermore California Independent . The book celebrates the American Dream and the suburban life style . The book is about his friends and their pride in having achieved material success .The book is very funny no irony or critique was intended.
(2) Karyukai refers to the elegant high culture of the Geisha. The “flower and the willow world” which also appear in the famous Ukiyo-e wood block prints produced in the 17- 19th century by artists such at as Utamaro and Hiroshige. It is a matriarchal society run by women although there are male geishas. Women are apprenticed and live in okiya and train in various Japanese arts such as classical music, dance, conversation mainly to entertain male customers.
This photographic work alludes to a contemporary version of this separate reality which still exists in Japan today. Women perform femininity with traditional kimonos. Each photograph is accompanied by a poem in Japanese composed by the subject.
(3) Monogatari are tales, an ancient Japanese literary form of which there are several genres prominent in the 9th to 15 th century. My photographs reference spirits or kaidan which take the form of animals. Popular tales from Japanese folklore became performed in Kabuki (Japanese classical dance drama from the Edo period) Noh and Bunraku.
Airelle from the series Another November by Laura Stevens.
Following the ending of a significant relationship in my life, an undoing began.
Another November is a series of staged performances enacting the all too familiar path of the broken hearted. Based on Laura’s personal experience she directed her subjects to represent her personal struggle in regaining independence and identity after a personal loss.
Laura Stevens is a photographic artist based in Paris. Her work often deals with issues surrounding relationships and has a particular leaning towards cinematic fictions. Her work has been exhibited worldwide including The National Portrait Gallery, London, The Centre for Fine Art Photography, USA, Encontros da Imagem, Portugal and The Latvian Museum of Photography. Laura received Special Distinction in the LensCulture Emerging Talents, 2014 and is a finalist in the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize, 2014.
Using friends as actors, props, locations and clothing, like in film, you have created scenes of individual narratives that all play part of a wider story. How did you go about finding each image and how did you decide how they held together as a series? In other words what were you looking for both on a micro and macro level?
Another November is a story about heartbreak. The photographs follow my own experience of losing love, but equally they could be anyone’s: the trajectory of loss, although massively simplified, seems to follow a general pattern of emotions – denial, pain, anger, loneliness – which affects everyone in unique ways. My experience was pretty turbulent which I reacted to by making this work. My principal motivation was to express all of these difficult feelings I was going through but, which, through a palatable visual form, use of multiple identities and dispersed gestures, could then be shared more easily by others. I started photographing friends of mine, at first without a clear structure or objective, but after several shoots I began to construct a series of scenes based on different situations within the domestic environment which could then help demonstrate a particular emotion. To create obvious parallels I decided that the images should be of only women, all of a similar age and living in Paris who could ultimately be seen as just one woman. I wanted to stage all of the photographs in the interiors of their homes, without any visual traces of other people in order to make the story about how one comes to terms with loss when alone. Depending upon the woman I was photographing, the look of her apartment and what was personally going on for me, these would all help determine the scene I would construct.
The series came together quite naturally; I would find a subject, see their home and understand what I needed to express. Often I would dress them in clothes of my own which added an element of identification. The scene would be pared down, eliminating traces of history and time so that the emotion of the woman became the principal element. The compositions, tones and colours of the images also helped to bring consistency and compatibility to the series as a whole.
Can you explain your choice of lighting to us please and talk a little about what impact it has on the work?
The lighting plays a principal role and is always very important in my work. Using artificial lights I can have total control in constructing the look of the scene. I wanted to create a cinematic drama which helped to illuminate the sentiments and match the imposing, sombre mood of the women. It’s a story about nostalgia so I tried to make the tones of the images relate to this.
This series grew out of a difficult personal experience for you. How has it been pouring your personal experience into your work? Has it been therapeutic to observe these ‘evolving chapters’ of change in you by distancing yourself through the camera?
In my life as in my work, I tend to be driven by my emotions, so I think it comes naturally to me to work this way. Making Another November gave me something to focus on, diverting my attention towards something active and productive, using difficult emotions and channelling them into something tangible. Seeing them transformed into visual objects made them ultimately easier to understand. I felt that once I had managed to describe an emotion into an image I was closer to letting it go, more aware that things were changing. At the same time, continually focusing on the thing that is the most painful makes it all-consuming, tough to get distance from and hence perhaps harder to let go. Revealing your vulnerabilities in such a way as this is scary and raw, but I think you have to be prepared to be a little naked in your art.
Are your subjects bringing their own stories into your narrative as well as your own or is it a case of them playing out your personal story? What does this blend of fact and fiction come together in the work?
The stories are my own, not those of the women, instead directing them along a narrative I provided. I asked them to put themselves into a role, to act out a scene but to also use their own feelings of loss, which are both unique and universal. Everyone can tap into this, it’s something we all go through at some point. The series was not a sociological study on heartbreak, but a journey through it; one woman’s experience.
What is it like putting this work into the public realm in the midst of both positive and negative criticism? How do you deal with both sides of the coin?
Once the work leaves your hands it becomes somehow set apart from yourself, a distance is created even if it is very personal. It has been obviously wonderful to receive acknowledgement for this project, and a strange shock to suddenly be more ‘present’, but as with the criticism, you have to try and take it with a pinch of salt and keep focusing on the work itself and not on the regard of others, even though I seem to perceive the criticism as more valid than the praise. I have been so touched to have received emails from people with their own tales of heartbreak. It is a huge honour to have strangers entrust you with their vulnerabilities and to know that the work has somehow resonated with them.
You also work as a commercial photographer in Paris with clients such as The Times Magazine, Le Monde, The Washington Post and Forbes magazine…. shooting celebrities and public figures such as Anselm Kiefer, Caitlin Moran, Jean-Michel Cohen and Rupert Everett. Do most photographers you know work like this – working as both artists and professionals? How do the two worlds overlap or clash? What has your commercial practice brought to your personal work and vice versa?
All of my photography friends have countless, different ways of working, each forging their own method of organising their time, energy and resources. I have managed to develop a practice of working commercially which allows me to make personal work alongside it, allowing for the rhythms of each. They both enrich the other, the contrasting approaches helping to create a balance. Working commercially I am able to photograph all manner of people and situations I would never normally encounter and gives me the chance to explore and develop different techniques in lighting and directing. My personal work is fundamentally a means to express myself, and through it I have established a certain style which can help to bring you to the eye of picture editors, so it’s all a positive loop. Sometimes the desire/need for working on one more than the other at times can create a strain, but that’s when your social life takes a tumble.
What are the main pressures of shooting celebrities and working for major publications?
To be good. There is enormous competition and you have to provide the imagery they need; there aren’t any second chances. And being somewhat reserved myself, telling a celebrity what to do is terrifying, but also kind of thrilling.
What would a typical shoot be like? Are you given much creative freedom or do you have to respond to a very specific location in a short space of time? How do you find this?
They are all very different. I might have anything from five minutes to one hour to make a portrait for an editorial shoot, often in their home/hotel, and create something from what I find. The briefs are often loose, so I am allowed a certain degree of freedom. They are a little in keeping with the way I photograph in my personal work too – responding to a person and the environment without lengthy planning. I love working this way, making quick decisions, trying to find a way to engage with a stranger and ask them to open up to you in a short space of time. It’s always an exciting challenge. In French, even more so.
Living between Paris and London do you see how photography in France is different from the UK? (I’m thinking both about how it is produced and also how it is received.) How do the two cultures approach the medium?
I come from a school where I was taught to construct photographs carefully, always aware of the conceptual underpinnings, and in Paris I have found there to be a tendency towards a more poetic perspective, but it’s hard to define. The French approach to life in general has more of an influence on me than the French approach to photography. The texture and colour of life here is different and this inspires me in many ways. For me, it oozes a romantic melancholy. It’s a pleasure to be able to participate in photo circles in Paris but it’s my experience within the city which has the biggest influence. Perhaps I should move to Denmark!
From the series The Other Woman by Natasha Caruana
Natasha Caruana is a photographic artist and founding director of the London based studioSTRIKE artists studios. Caruana was born in London, 1983. She has an MA in photography from the Royal College of Art, London and is a Senior Lecturer of Photography at the University for the Creative Arts, Surrey, UK.
Caruana’s own art practice is grounded in research concerned with narratives of love, betrayal and fantasy. Significant to all Caruana’s work is the questioning of how today’s technology is impacting relationships. Her series ‘Married Man’ documents love and life of the everyday and her later work ‘Fairytale for Sale’ explores the strange ritual of newlyweds blocking out their faces in online adverts. Her work is created drawing from archives, the Internet and personal narratives.
I became the ‘other woman’ on February 23rd, 2003.
(Artist statement – The Other Woman)
Some of your work is very personal and exposing, in fact it is how your career began. How did this come about? Was it therapeutic somehow; necessary?
I didn’t begin photographing until I was about to leave school when I inherited my grandfather’s Pentax K1000. Over the summer holiday I started photographing life in my town and tin cans in the supermarket. I quickly moved onto documenting new arrivals to the UK queuing outside the home office in Croydon. This was the start of the fascination with personal stories. I carried on photographing other people’s stories throughout my photography degree. It wasn’t until my final third year project when the camera turned inwards to document my own story. This viewpoint has continued and today I still draw from personal experience. My work often comes from something I’m wrestling with in my life. I strive to translate something personal into the universal.
From the series The Other Woman
How was this work received and what impact did that have on you (personally and as an artist)?
It’s been very fascinating for me to receive such diverse responses to the work. I often get emails from other women or married men that want to talk to me about their situations. I’ve found that through my work people feel they are able to have open conversations with me… but at the other end of the spectrum… I’ve had emails from married men asking me out.
It still amazes me how remarkable the power photography has to enable shared experience.
From the series The Married Man
What inspires you? Where do you get your stories from?
The closest answer I can give is that my work comes from the everyday. I live a very active life, meeting people, travelling, having many hobbies, having a close-knit family and friendship circle so I’m always in touch with life. An idea can come from a family dinner, an overheard conversation at yoga or car boot sale.
I notice or find myself pondering over something, and start to explore the idea from different angles – by reading relevant material, visiting archives, looking on the internet, talking to people, and so on.
Your works are usually exhibited as installations – using sound and text – how important is this to you and why? How do you discern what makes a good installation?
Due to the research based nature of my practice I build up a lot of material whilst exploring and shooting around an idea. I try to push and reinvest the form of the photograph, moving between different formats, techniques and technologies – from a camera phone to a disposable camera, watch camera, large format camera and the appropriated image. This is reflected in the way I exhibit the work. The installation grows out of the research process. At the beginning of the series I never set out to create an installation. It often naturally evolves and the material seems too important to edit out, so it becomes part of the final work.
Further to this I really enjoy the challenge of curating work to a specific exhibition space. I try to keep things interesting by adding or reworking material for different spaces – an installation can often be the outcome of this process.
The Married Man was quite risky. How did you feel about undertaking this project? Were you nervous during the ‘dates’? What drove you to make this work? What did you learn?
The Married Man project was a mixture of part thrilling, part sad repetitive moments. I was drawn to the fact that the dates weren’t at all what I expected. During the initial 5 dates (research process of the project) I found the men were mostly using me like a quasi-marriage councillor. This was something surprising and was a contrast to how one would imagine an affair to be. I wanted to understand more about how men felt in marriage, what were their intentions to me? The project had the overarching question ‘how is technology changing relationships today?’ this was born from the fact I was using Internet dating websites solely set up for married men to find a mistress.
I learnt a lot about marriage and the importance of continued communication between man and wife, as it can often slip into the wife and child relationship being the most dominate. Through the series I also gained a better understanding about the act and means of photographing. I learnt to change formats and use the camera format best suited to the work… this challenged me to not just pick up what is familiar. It this instance I started to use a disposable camera. The way you photograph can also be important to the conceptual framework of the series.
From the series The Married Man
Can you tell us about your current series The Detective? What is it about? What are you hoping to achieve?
The Detective documents the narrative of Rebecca Jane, the owner of the Lady Detective Agency, the UK’s leading all female-staffed detective agency. The work is still in progress and I’m currently exploring the multiplicity of point of view, the fleeting moment and the extension of the photographer’s lens. I’m doing this by moving between different formats, combining images taken on a small digital camera, a watch camera, an iPhone, on Snapchat and on a large format 10x8in camera with a team of lighting professionals.
Themes of love and fantasy tinged with brokenness continue to run through your work. Are these things that we should expect to see again? What draws you back to these niche relational dynamics?
I honestly have no idea what the future holds in terms of subject matter. I can never predict when an idea will strike.
As a photographer you move between snapshot photographs, large format imagery, iPhones. What roles do different cameras play in your research and production? How do you know what is the right camera?
I experiment with different cameras and shoot the same thing on different formats. From the results I am able to work out which camera is suited to the project and what I’m trying to achieve both aesthetically and conceptually.
What is it like working with a team? How is your role as photographer changing as you progress? Are you operating a bit like a director and how is that different?
Working in a team was great fun. On one of the Detective shoots I worked with a 10 x 8 format. Having other people on hand to perfect the lighting, manage the camera, meant I could really focus on getting the right image. I’m so used to photographing my projects alone, I did feel nervous ahead of the shoot as I wasn’t sure how it would feel having other people there. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. As it turned out having other people there meant I could talk the idea through. It also meant I could share the experience with other people. I had been photographing up in Lancashire for about a year and it was wonderful to share the landscape with others.
Work in progress from The Detective
You recently won the prestigious BMW artist residency. Congratulations! What plans do you have for the residency? How is it going? What will you be doing day to day and how will you use the time and resources? Are we allowed to have an insight into what you might produce?
Thank you. I’m very excited to work on a new project. I’m searching for the truth behind Love at First Sight or Coup de Foudre – The Lightning Bolt. The work will explore personal experience and popular mythology, as well as investigating the subject through the work of neuroscientists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.
I’ve always been fascinated by the museum’s archive so I am also working with the Nicéphore Niépce collection. It’s a beautiful and touching collection. I am giving particular attention to the amateur photograph albums and vernacular images it holds.
For those interested in knowing more about the residency I’m sharing all my research and progress onto my artist facebook page.
What does this prize mean for your career? (The BMW residency results in a solo show at Recontres d’Arles and Paris Photo, 2015.)
This residency is a once-in-a-career opportunity and knowing the work I make will be shown at both Les Rencontres d’Arles next year and at Paris Photo will push me to take my work to a higher professional standard, particularly in terms of presentation. It also means I’m working in an entirely new way. Normally my projects take me one or two years to complete. With the residency I have to have a project completed from start to finish in about two months!
From the series The Other Woman
You also work full time as senior lecturer at UCA, Farnham. What does this role bring to your practice and how do you manage to do everything?
Yes I work at the University for the Creative Arts, Farnham. I run the second year on the Photography Degree programme. I am part of a fantastic team and I work amongst some incredible and passionate photographers/ educators.
Working full time is of course not ideal in terms of keeping up my practice, but looking at it optimistically I get to know my students very well and I basically get to work with ideas all day. By working with the students so closely I get a lot of personal reward seeing their creative and personal confidence grow throughout the degree. It is very long hours and I’m definitely not in love with the four-hour daily commute! But by working in education it does mean I can have the holidays for my practice, and with my salary I can employ assistant Sarah Howe, she is a brilliant support and keeps everything ticking over for me during the stressful term time.
The research department and media school have been amazingly supportive towards the BMW Award and it’s incredible to be given this time away from teaching. The residency is a welcome opportunity to focus wholly on my own practice. Throughout my career I have a never had an uninterrupted period to work on my projects. I’m now two weeks into the three months and to be honest it does feel a little odd to not be running fresher’s week this year, and meeting all my new second years. I suppose the next couple of months will be a good lesson in letting go and taking time for my work.
Vent divin, David Favrod, 2013
This work represents my compulsion to build and shape my own memory. To reconstitute some facts I haven’t experienced myself, but have unconsciously influenced me while growing up.
My grandparents witnessed the war; survivors who finally passed away and whose memories will soon be a part of history. Only once did we speak about their experiences during the war. They told me how illness can take away your sisters; the shame; the relief after the war; and the watermelons …
But after that night, we never talked about it again. As if my grandparents gave me their memories as a whisper through the air before allowing it to disappear from their minds.
Somehow, I would say that I borrowed their memories. I use their stories as source of inspiration for my own testimony.
In his series Hikari, David Favrod visits an important time in Japanese history, and its impact on him and his family, through memories. The result is a poignant and compelling narrative positioned somewhere between the personal and the universal. Hints of opening narratives and an other worldly imagination emerged in my mind as I had the pleasure of looking at this work, recently showing at Voies Off Gallery in Arles. Favrod’s use of high impact and visceral imagery set alongside an experimental presentation style succeeds in pulling the viewer towards it whilst simultaneously retaining a sense of mystery.
The following interview took place on 22nd September 2014.
SB: Your work is situated within a general concept – memories of your Grandparents based on a one night only conversation (Hikari), or your struggle with dual culture identity (Gaijin) – which is fascinating. How do you then come up with the individual imagery? Can you give us an insight into your thought process?
DF: When I want to start a new project I think about what I want to show and what I want to speak about. Before taking any picture I write the general idea and I start to draw the images on my sketchbook. That allows me to construct the series and to see if there are too many landscapes, enough portrait or still life and to have a balance in the series from these different type of photographs. For each image I think about how I can produce it. I try to find the best solution to speak about the story behind each images. And for sure I think about the series and how the images can work together. It’s a quite long process but I like to work like this.
Mishiko, David Favrod, 2012
The girl with the watermelon is Mishiko, she was the sister of my grandfather. She fell ill during the second war, doctors diagnosed poor hydration. In Japan, watermelon is a very popular fruit and holds much water. So his parents gave it to her regularly. But the diagnosis was wrong; it was a salt deficiency and she died shortly after.
Autoportrait en poulpe, David Favrod, 2009
One of my few memories of my travels in Japan when I was young are the drawings of octopus. I loved takoyaki and in front of the takoyaki stand there were always octopus drawn like that. You see the resemblance? haha!
And the bird shadow made from hands is le bunker. In my building in Vionnaz there is a anti-nuclear bunker. It’s an obligation in Switzerland that every house or building needs to construct is own anti-nuclear bunker. It’s the law. And if you don’t want you need to pay. Anyway.
Le bunker, David Favrod, 2012
A few weeks after the explosion, scientists saw that the flash of the bomb had discolored the walls that were still standing. The bomb had left marks corresponding to the projections of objects, bodies and street furniture, like a photographic projection. The heat due to heat radiation made visible shadows on the ground. Shadows could be a man who stood at the time of the tragedy and had somehow ‘protected’ the wall from the bomb. It was the same with a ladder, a valve or pylons of a bridge.
BAOUMMM, David Favrod, 2013
Although your work is strongly based in the photographic you often make use of sound (onomatopoeia) and installation to enhance your exhibits. How did this presentation evolve and what do you think it adds to your work?
I can’t say I use sound in my process right now. I just represent sounds. A lot of the memories of my grandparents during WWII were sounds. During the bombings they went to underground shelters. It was dark. The memories they remain from their events are the sound of explosions, the sound of planes, people crying, … So, my question was : How can I introduce sound in my picture? It’s why I decided to use onomatopoeias (that were found in manga/comic) and to paint them on the prints. Yes the installations are a very important question for me. How the installation can use the space to tell the story. I always start from the space and I construct every installation for each space (gallery, museum). So my installations evolve for each exhibition. Each picture is only one size. However I allow myself to change the size of an image when I use murals, this allows me to balance an installation or create a new correlation between 2 superimposed images. Depending on the space and the choice of images, I work on the composition. I reason in terms of sequence and the relation between the images with a choice of spacing and alternating formats. This creates a dynamic viewpoint of the installation, not only horizontally but also in the space. The viewer comes closer to look at a small work, and then moves back to see a larger one, and so one.
Pour Sadako, David Favrod, 2012
How important is mystery to you? And why? Do you want the viewer to bring something to the work? Do you have any nice examples of this happening?
Mystery is very important in my work. Indeed it’s really important for me that the viewer brings his or her own history to the work. I don’t explain in the exhibition the stories behind each images there is only my statement in the entrance. So the viewer has the general idea but I hope they will ask themselves to create